Monday, August 31, 2015

Crumbs Under the Table

When my wife and I first became Methodists back in the early 80s, we worshiped with a small Methodist congregation, aptly named Wesley United Methodist Church.  There were only about 50 regular worshipers there each Sunday.  The congregation was small but the members were devout and devoted to their expression of faith.  Each first Sunday of the month, Holy Communion was celebrated and we were instructed to turn to page 832 in the back of the red hymnal to find the order of worship for Holy Communion.  The language contained in it was very old, some of it going back to the Anglican roots of the Methodist Church.

One particular part of the order of Holy Communion was called the Prayer of Humble Access.  These are words contained in it that we would pray before we would receive the elements of Holy Communion:
"We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.  But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.  Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so as to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, and grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.  Amen."

After that prayer, we would make our way to the altar rail to kneel to receive the bread and grape juice (never wine in the UMC), feeling pretty unworthy even to accept these tokens of faith from the hand of God.  I always liked that prayer, even though the mood of it is fairly dismal at first.  I think I liked the idea of gathering up the crumbs that fall from the table, such as a dog may do when small bits of food fall to the floor while the family is eating.  That is a very humbling image--one who picks up crumbs that fall below the table instead of eating at the table with others.

This image can be found in the Gospel lesson we will examine next Sunday during worship.  A Gentile woman approaches Jesus, asking him to heal her daughter.  For some reason, Jesus is hesitant to grant her request.  Perhaps it is because of her status as a Gentile and of him being a Jew.  He tells her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  The woman was not dissuaded by Jesus' comparing her to a dog; instead, she used that same image to state her case--"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

How surprised Jesus must have been to hear that from this lowly woman.  He saw her comeback as a statement of faith in him.  "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left  your daughter."  She received the healing she had desired from Jesus for her daughter because she would not be put off.  Her persistence brought about what she desired.  

"Crumbs under the table" in this story has to do with humility and lowliness, accepting that our status is not with those in power in society.  Perhaps that is why Jesus saw something in this woman that resonated with him.  He too was lowly, not part of the power structure or religious class of his day.  He could see that she was coming to him in humility but desiring something desperately needed for her daughter.

Humility is something that Jesus stressed again and again as a key to being part of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Beatitudes taught that the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are merciful, those who suffer for righteousness' sake, and the peacemakers were first in God's Kingdom.  Those who were servants of others were leaders there.  Arrogance and self-righteousness have no part in the kingdom that Jesus established.  It was only by coming to God as a child or one lowly in spirit that connected with what Jesus taught about his kingdom.

Some in religious circles substitute "kin-dom" for "kingdom" when they talk about the Kingdom of Heaven.  They make this change for many reasons but one of the positive reasons has to do with kinship, with belonging to one another.  We all are unworthy to gather up the crumbs under the table, unworthy in our own righteousness, at least.  God makes us worthy to be part of God's great Kingdom of love and mercy by accepting us as his own, not based on our own merit but based solely on his grace.  And God commands us to do the same for accept them as they are and love them as they are and allow God to work in their lives to become what God would make of them.

We will share Holy Communion this Sunday, all of us sharing the crumbs we can gather as we admit our need and accept the grace that only God can give.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sticks and Stones

Most of us can remember being teased by others when we were children.  Sometimes the teasing hurt us.  Perhaps someone called us names based upon what we looked like or some characteristic that we had.  When that happened, often someone would say to the teaser, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."  We knew that was not true--words do hurt people--but we wanted to appear that the teasing did not bother us.

Words are powerful tools, either for good or evil.  Words can build up others or tear them down.  Words can praise or destroy another person.  Words, once said, are difficult to retrieve.  Once they are out of our mouths, they cannot be taken back.  The effect of words is long lasting.  Sometimes they cause us to be shaped into the person that we become.

When I was a school teacher, in my first year of teaching, I taught in a rural school district north of Houston.  I taught special needs students, many of whom had behavior issues as well as learning challenges.  One boy that I taught was named Barry.  He was in the fifth grade but was large for his age and may have even been older than the other students due to his learning difficulties.  Barry was full of energy and was always chasing the other students and often an altercation would happen between one or more students and Barry.  Usually they were minor incidents and did not require a lot of attention.

One day, when I was on playground duty, an older teacher came toward me with Barry by his side.  The older teacher had his arm around Barry's neck and had a scowl on his face.  He brought Barry in front of me and held him there.  "Mr. Carpenter," he said, "you see this boy."  I looked at Barry who was looking down at the ground.  "Yes," I replied, "I see Barry."  "Well," the older teacher continued, "one day Barry is going to be in the penitentiary.  He can't keep his hands to himself and he is always getting in trouble."  I looked at Barry, who was still looking down at the ground and immediately I had feeling of empathy toward him.  How must it have felt to him to have this older teacher make the prediction about him that he would one day be in prison?  That experience has bothered me all through the years because of the actions of that teacher.

Years later, as I read the Houston newspaper, I saw an article about a man named Barry who had burned a building down and was being sent to prison.  Yes, it was the same Barry who now had grown up to be a man and who had lived up to the predictions that the older teacher had made about him.  I wondered if Barry became the person that people said he would be, if he had lived up to their expectations, because few had faith in him that he could be anything different that what he became.

Psychologists call that a "self-fulfilling prophecy".  That means that people often become what we think they will become.  What we see in others often shapes who they are because they internalize the perceptions of others and see themselves the way others see them.  If teachers constantly tell students that they are slow or low achieving or mean, many times the students will live up to their teachers' expectations and become what others say they should become.

That does not stop with students.  It continues with adults also.  The words we use about others have power.  The words can do good or cause harm.  We are the ones to determine what happens when we say the words.

" one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing."  (James 3:8-10a)